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Monday, May 07, 2007

The Struggles of Adam Eaton 

When the Phillies revamped their rotation in the off-season the acquisition most people focused on was the signing of pitcher Freddy Garica. The talented Garcia was a workhorse who had helped the Chicago White Sox win the 2005 World Series. Lesser discussed was the Phillies acquisition of Adam Eaton, the former Texas Ranger and San Diego Padre who had been selected by the Phillies in the first round of the 1996 MLB draft. The Phillies inked Eaton to a three-year, $24.5 million dollar deal that is far more significant in the long run for the team’s fortunes than the signing of Garcia, who is in the walk year of his current contract and highly unlikely to return to the Phillies after he explores the free agent market this fall. Adam Eaton will be a part of the Phillies in 2008 and 2009, long after Freddy Garcia moves on to the Yankees or Mets.

Alright, I am going to start talking numbers. Before you get utterly confused about what I’m talking about, here are the stats I refer to defined:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP

So, how is Adam Eaton doing? Don’t ask. Thus far both Eaton and Garcia have been huge busts for the Phillies, although in Garcia’s defense he is coming off of injuries. Ironically the Phillies holdovers, including Jon Lieber – whom Eaton and Garcia were to supplant in the rotation – have been much better than the new arrivals:

Jon Lieber: 2.57
Jamie Moyer: 2.65
Cole Hamels: 3.54
Freddy Garcia: 6.05
Adam Eaton: 8.18

Okay, make that much, MUCH better than the new arrivals. Naturally these ERA numbers ought to be adjusted a little because Eaton and Garcia aren’t pitching that badly:

Jamie Moyer: 3.34
Cole Hamels: 3.41
Jon Lieber: 4.28
Freddy Garcia: 4.49
Adam Eaton: 5.04

Lieber and Moyer seems to be benefiting from some good defense (.758 and .748 DER respectively), which is helping their numbers a little, but they deserve some credit for that: both are finesse pitchers who induce a lot of groundballs. Eaton is an interesting case to evaluate:

First off, it is difficult to evaluate Eaton's recent past because he’s pitched so few innings. Just 65 innings with the Rangers in 2006 and 128 innings with the Padres in 2005. Another problem is the Petco Park factor. Eaton pitched in what is arguably the most pitcher-friendly park in the majors in 2004 and 2005. According to the 2005 Bill James Handbook, Petco Park had a Home Run Factor of 66 and a Run Factor of 82 in 2004, ranking as the second-worst park in the N.L. for offense, behind Hiram Bithron Stadium in Puerto Rico, the Montreal Expos temporary home for part of the 2004 season. (100 is neutral, 99 and below is unfriendly to hitters.) Given that so few games were played in Puerto Rico, I am unsure if we ought not simply rank Petco #1 anyway. The 2006 Bill James Handbook rated Petco as the friendliest park to pitchers, with a Home Run Factor of 66 and a Run Factor of 77 in 2004. Eaton's stats as a Padre were very much influenced by Petco. Conversely, The Ballpark at Arlington, the Texas Rangers homefield, rates second in the AL in Run Factor in 2006 at 108 according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook. So what kind of a pitcher are the Phillies getting?

According to STATS, Inc., Eaton is primarily a fastball pitcher who supplements his repertoire of pitches with a curveball, a changeup and slider. You’d figure that he’d favor his slider a bit more pitching at Citizens. I’m assuming that he’s been using his fastball too much or his slider hasn’t been working of late.

Here’s how Eaton’s numbers stack up against the Phillies and the rest of the N.L.:

Eaton / Phillies / N.L.
ERA: 8.18 / 4.59 / 4.00
WHIP: 1.73 / 1.44 / 1.38
HR/9: 1.36 / 1.10 / 0.85
BB/9: 4.63 / 3.84 / 3.57
K/9: 7.63 / 7.86 / 6.61
DER: .647 / .679/ .696

The thing that immediately pops out at you are the strikeouts (above the league average and about what the rest of the Phillies are doing), but especially the home runs and walks allowed. When you allow a free base-runner every other inning, you are really killing yourself. Walks take a lot of pitches and are far worse for a pitcher than a single, which is what 66% of the hits this season have been, because they wear on the pitchers arm and are a mental mistake as opposed to something he cannot control. Allowing walks is really developing into a problem for Phillies pitchers this season.

The Home Run factor is also an issue with Eaton, and this is where we get into Park Factors a little. Theoretically walks and strikeouts are park-neutral stats, but home runs depend partly on where players pitch. Eaton has bounced from a pitcher-friendly park (Petco) to extremely hitter-friendly parks (The Ballpark at Arlington, Citizens Bank Ballpark). The effect on his stats has been interesting to look at:

2004: 1.27 (Petco)
2005: 0.98 (Petco)
2006: 1.52 (Arlington)
2007: 1.36 (Citizens)

The 2004 number is a stark one to me: he threw 199 innings for a team that played in a park that was absurdly friendly to pitchers and he allowed 28 home runs that season. At Arlington last season he got hit in the brief amount of time that he was a Ranger, surrendering eleven home runs in those sixty-five innings. Ouch. These should be disturbing numbers for Phillies fans to consider. So far this season he's given up five home runs in his thirty-three innings of work.

I used to think that being an extreme ground-ball pitcher was a prerequisite to pitching in Citizens, but a more sophisticated understanding of the game’s dynamics has convinced me that being a fly-ball pitcher isn’t the kiss of death in Philadelphia. Here is what the rotation’s ground-ball / fly-ball ratio is:

Moyer: 0.83
Hamels: 1.00
Eaton: 1.10
Garcia: 1.32
Lieber: 1.71

At the moment the Phillies two strongest pitchers are, arguably, Moyer and Hamels, the most fly-ball oriented pitchers the Phillies have. I don’t really talk about the importance of keeping the ball down because I think that it isn’t important. Keeping guys from getting walks, getting them to strikeout and keeping the ball in the park are the sole factors we will focus on here. I think fly-ball pitchers and ground-ball pitchers can make it in Philadelphia. This is not Adam Eaton’s problem. The rest of it is.

I am rather surprised and disturbed to see Eaton’s walks allowed. He’s actually been pretty good, historically speaking, about giving up walks:

2004: 2.34
2005: 3.07
2006: 3.32

I think his 4.63 BB/9 in 2007 is a little high and will come down eventually. Still, it isn’t a good sign that his walks have been trending up for the last four years …

In the final analysis, you have to worry that the Phillies may have made a bad investment in Adam Eaton. Maybe he doesn't have the stuff to be the front-line starter that the Phillies are hoping and praying he is. Maybe he's just very unlucky, but it strikes me that Eaton is too suseptable to allowing walks and home runs to be an effective pitcher at Citizens Bank Ballpark. Add to the poor fielding support that the Phillies are giving Eaton and you have a recipe for disaster. Oh sure, Eaton is throwing better than his 8.18 ERA looks, but even a 5.04 ERA is too high for the Phillies to tolerate from a starting pitcher. Let's hope Eaton improves, but otherwise it strikes me that Adam Eaton is the Phillies rotation's weakest link.

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